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If you believe in the existence of aliens, some might consider you a crackpot with a tinfoil hat. If you're a Harvard professor with a PhD who believes in the existence of aliens ... well, let's just say that might raise even more eyebrows. One academic, however, dared to fly in the face of everything to study alien abduction cases. That would be John E. Mack, whose fascinating story takes center stage in the fourth and final episode of Showtime's UFO docu-series, which aired earlier this evening.
Born John Edward Mack in 1929, the future academic attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate before pursuing his medical degree at Harvard, where he would later work and teach as a psychiatrist. In fact, he founded the department of psychiatry at the university's Cambridge Hospital, running the unit for close to a decade. Early on in his career, Mack studied dreams and psychological ramifications of the Cold War (particularly the constant threat of nuclear annihilation). He also won the Pulitzer Prize for A Prince of Our Disorder, an acclaimed biography of T.E. Lawrence.
By the early 1990s, Mack found himself interested in studying individuals who claimed to have been abducted by extra-terrestrials (people he dubbed “experiencers”). He believed them when no one else would. With a grant from Laurance Rockefeller, he began the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research.
His contemporaries were skeptical, but he forged on, determined to bring UFOs and aliens into the world of modern science. To be fair, though, Mack himself was also skeptical at first (like any good scientist would be). He admitted to being raised in a materialist household, but ultimately found that formative philosopHy turned on its head once he began interviewing experiencers.
"When I heard about this phenomenon in 1990, I was very doubtful. I thought it must be some kind of mental illness," he told The Washington Post during an interview conducted in the mid-'90s. "I came gradually to the conclusion that I could not find any psychiatric explanation or other explanation except that some kind of trauma happened to them."
His findings led to the publication of two books: Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens in 1994 and Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters in 1999. "I've been criticized for it," he added to the Post. "But on the other hand, this is a matter that is important to the public at large as well as the professional community. In academic circles, one can look askance when a professor goes on a popular national television show like that."
"These people suffered from no obvious psychiatric disorder, except the effects of traumatic experience, and were reporting with powerful emotion what to them were utterly real experiences," he wrote in Abduction (via Vanity Fair). "Furthermore, these experiences were sometimes associated with UFO sightings by friends, family members, or others in the community, including media reporters and journalists, and frequently left physical traces on the individuals’ bodies, such as cuts and small ulcers that would tend to heal rapidly and followed no apparent psychodynamically identifiable pattern as do, for example, religious stigmata. In short, I was dealing with a phenomenon that I felt could not be explained psychiatrically, yet was simply not possible within the framework of the Western scientific worldview.”
Mack died at the age of 74 when he was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street in London in 2004. This led some to believe that the doctor was assassinated by shadowy elements because he was getting a little too close to the truth. Of course, no evidence supporting this conspiracy theory has been unearthed.
Mack's life and career were documented in the biography The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack. The book was written by Ralph Blumenthal, one of the journalists behind the 2017 New York Times article that blew the whistle on the U.S. government's top-secret UFO program.
“There was something cavalier about the way he didn't seem to care much about what the consequences were of what he was doing,” Blumenthal said to the San Antonio Express-News earlier this summer. “And that was both a blessing and a curse.”
Showtime subscribers with access to the network's official app can stream all four episodes of UFO (executive-produced by J.J. Abrams) right now. The premiere is currently free to watch on YouTube, Showtime.com, and Sho.com.